Sunday, May 16, 2021

Boots in the Mosque

Sheikh Jarrah from the air, 1931. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, via Wikipedia.

How the crisis started, as reported in The Times yesterday:

JERUSALEM — Twenty-seven days before the first rocket was fired from Gaza this week, a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, brushed the Palestinian attendants aside and strode across its vast limestone courtyard. Then they cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast prayers to the faithful from four medieval minarets.

It was the night of April 13, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was also Memorial Day in Israel, which honors those who died fighting for the country. The Israeli president was delivering a speech at the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site that lies below the mosque, and Israeli officials were concerned that the prayers would drown it out.

I found myself wondering about a detail: when you enter a mosque, you take off your shoes first, leaving them in a crowd of shoes around the entrance, or for the more fastidious putting them in a bag to carry with you. Were the cops really unlacing their high-top boots and pulling them off before pushing inside, or were they just marching in, profaning the place?

Dr. Google couldn't find any cases of Israeli police explicitly reported entering al-Aqsa with their boots on a specific occasion more recent than 16 January 2020, but they seem to have been doing it over the nights of really violent raids on the mosque last week, starting on the last Friday of Ramadan, when

“The level of violence used by the Israeli security forces inside the holy mosque was unprecedented. Hundreds of soldiers entered and shot an enormous amount of tear gas and rubber bullets directly at worshippers, with a number hit in the face and losing their eyes. Many people, including women, were also beaten,” [Jerusalem activist and historian Ehab] Jallad told Al Jazeera.

And Munther Zahran from the Ta’awon for Conflict Resolution, an NGO in Ramallah, who was in Jerusalem for the prayers, reported that

“The clashes began when worshippers tried to stop the soldiers entering the mosque and hurled shoes and plastic bottles at them. It is forbidden for soldiers to enter such a holy place as Al-Aqsa, especially with weapons and boots.

And according to The Art Newspaper of London, 

“People around the world don’t understand; commentators think we can ‘win’, but this is about al-Aqsa,” says Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former deputy foreign minister who works with regional Jewish, Islamic and Christian leaders on rights, nonviolence and conflict resolution.

“When Israeli police trample into al-Aqsa with boots and stop one of the holiest prayers, it is one of the gravest transgressions of Islam,” Melchior says. “This you don’t do.”

Boots in the mosque are a little like the cartridges greased with animal fat, possibly from beef and pork, that British officers forced the sepoys to use in India in 1857, sparking the Mutiny: a deliberate offense on the part of the overlords, as if meant to emphasize their power to ignore the feelings of their subjects. Of course you can't raid a mosque barefoot, or in flipflops. The only alternative would be to not raid it at all, which is the normal approach.

It wasn't the only way Israeli authorities contributed to the current disturbances—there was the expected eviction of six Palestinian families living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, from housing built by Jordanian authorities in 1956 to accommodate refugees expelled from their homes in Israel proper in 1948. After the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, the government began gifting the houses to Jewish trusts, in the name of Sephardic Jews who had lived in the neighborhood and may have owned the no longer existing houses they lived in in the 19th century (the ownership back then is in dispute, with back-and-forth allegations of forgery), which began collecting rent from the Palestinian residents, and eventually the residents began going on a rent strike, and the most recent owners, the rightwing settler organization Nahalat Shimon, which makes no secret of its ambition to effectively ethnically cleanse East Jerusalem and "Judaize" it, have been trying to get them evicted so they can rent them to Jewish families, probably in defiance of international law, which doesn't recognize Israeli title to land seized in the war. 

I'm not making any legal rulings, obviously (see Council of Foreign RelationsWikipedia, and very good coverage in The Forward), but the dispute is really increasing tension at the same time as the goings-on at the mosque, the police attempting to stop Palestinians from their customary Ramadan gatherings as the Damascus Gate, the parading of Israeli Jewish thugs through Arab neighborhoods (a group called Lehava chanting "Death to the Arabs"). And of course there are also cases of unacceptable Arab violence, especially one horrible TikTok video of young men beating up an old Haredi Jew.

What I'd be anxious to emphasize is the conduct of two figures who clearly benefit from the conflict: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was on the point of losing his job after failing to form a government following the fourth ambiguous general election in two years, and unable to continue evading his corruption trial, all of which is now in abeyance since the conflict began; and the Hamas military commander in the Gaza Strip, Muhammed Deif,  who issued a warning to Israel on 4 May to stop "the aggression against our people in Sheikh Jarrah", and followed it up on Monday, after the second Israeli police raid on al-Aqsa, with the massive and unusually lethal Hamas rocket attacks on Israel we have been witnessing, establishing him as a kind of powerful and active "leader" of Palestinians in contrast to the decrepit and helpless Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

While things get worse on the ground, for Jews and Arabs alike, with 12 Israelis, including two children, killed, and in Netanyahu's much more lethal continuing response at least 188 Gazans, including 55 women and 33 children, plus 13 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and very unusual violent thug conflict between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens, particularly in Lod:

There's no reason to think either Netanyahu or Deif cares about the suffering and destruction they are causing, beyond their own personal advantage, but I can't help blaming Netanyahu more, for starting it, in the full consciousness of what he was going to unleash, and for having so much the most power of anybody involved. It's keeping him out of prison, and possibly in office through a fifth election in which he's again a military hero, with a chance to actually win for once. The fact that it starts on Temple Mount reminds me of Ariel Sharon, whose well-publicized trip up Temple Mount in fall 2000, a gesture, it has been thought, to push away Netanyahu's attempt to take over the Likud Party by establishing his personal toughness, and the spark that lit the violent Second Intifada. Those boots in the mosque give me the same feeling as that did.

For the children, Jewish and Arab alike, it's just not fair:

Update 5/17: Should have noted Josh Marshall's argument of Friday (members-only section) that the crisis is an unamibiguous benefit to Netanyahu, which is what got me going.

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